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The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe

Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry. Harper, $29.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-298089-2

Historians Gabriele (An Empire of Memory) and Perry (Sacred Plunder) argue in this accessible revisionist history that the so-called Dark Ages was actually a period of innovation that helped pave the way for the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Highlighting architectural, artistic, literary, and theological breakthroughs, the authors analyze Dante’s Divine Comedy and shed light on the creation of Empress Galla Placida’s mausoleum in Italy, the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul), and the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, among other achievements. Occasional references to 21st-century pop culture, including the musical Hamilton, keep the tone light as Gabriele and Perry chronicle the devastating toll plagues took on the Middle Ages; analyze Emperor Charlemagne’s uniting of Roman, Christian, and Israelite traditions; and counter the misconceptions about the Crusades that have been propagated by modern-day white supremacists and Islamic fundamentalists. Though the authors somewhat understate the brutality and religious persecution of the era, they add nuance and complexity to popular conceptions of the Dark Ages and make clear that beauty and achievement existed among the horrors. This is a worthy introduction to an oft-misunderstood period in world history. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 09/24/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Duchess Countess: The Woman Who Scandalized Eighteenth-Century London

Catherine Ostler. Atria, $30 (480p) ISBN 978-1-982179-73-1

Journalist Ostler debuts with an intriguing look at Elizabeth Chudleigh (1721–1788), the vivacious noblewoman whose 1776 criminal trial for bigamy riveted England. Though she was born into the gentry, the early deaths of Elizabeth’s father and brother left her in a precarious financial strait. In 1743, she was appointed maid of honor to the Princess of Wales, a position that came with a yearly salary but required her to be unmarried. Nevertheless, she married a dashing young sailor in a clandestine ceremony after her first season at court. It was an unhappy marriage, however, and Elizabeth continued to serve at court and present herself as “socially available.” She married the Duke of Kingston in 1769 and inherited the bulk of his estate four years later, but his descendants contested the will and Elizabeth was eventually convicted of bigamy and stripped of her title. She fled England with her fortune, however, and lived in St. Petersburg, where she joined the court of Catherine the Great, and Paris. Ostler includes enlightening discourses on Hanoverian court dramas and the financial and social constraints placed on women of the era, but her suggestion that Elizabeth may have suffered from borderline personality disorder somewhat muddies the picture. Still, this is a rich and nuanced portrait of a fascinating woman. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/24/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Being Texan: Essays, Recipes, and Advice for the Lone Star Way of Life

Editors of Texas Monthly. Harper Wave, $29.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-06-306854-4

Contributors to Texas Monthly consider “what it means to be Texan” in this lighthearted collection. Mimi Swartz’s essay “Strong Texas Women” discusses Gov. Ann Richards and journalist Molly Ivins, as well as 21st-century role models Beyoncé, Simone Biles, and Lizzo. Sterry Butcher notes that less than 2% of the state’s territory is federal land (“Texas, in other words, is held by Texans”); David Courtney provides an amusing round-up of “weirdly named towns” (among them, Ding Dong, Wink, and Fink), and Wes Ferguson identifies Texas’s “most dangerous creatures,” including black widow spiders, scorpions, and fire ants. Elsewhere, John Spong discusses how the John Sayles film Lone Star redefined the Texas western by depicting “the way everyday Brown, Black, and white Texans were dealing with the state’s cruel racial history,” and Skip Hollandsworth incisively analyzes how novelist Larry McMurtry “elevated and eviscerated [Texas] with the kind of marrow-piercing observations only ever allowed native sons.” Readers will also find recipes for cheese enchiladas, Viet-Cajun crawfish, and a cactus juice cocktail to wash them down. This entertaining compendium captures the allure of the Lone Star state. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/24/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Nina Simone’s Gum

Warren Ellis. Faber & Faber, $27.95 (208p) ISBN 978-0-571-36562-3

Musician and composer Ellis debuts with an enchanting story of how his life was changed by a seemingly insignificant object: a piece of gum chewed by Nina Simone. A close friend and bandmate of Nick Cave, Ellis traveled to London to hear Simone perform at Cave’s 1999 Meltdown Festival. This late in her career, Ellis recounts, the fiery Simone was slowed by health problems, but after performing her first song, “something shifted... [as] her voice railed in defiance against her body.... To watch her transformation was a religious experience.” Overwhelmed by the moment, Ellis took a piece of chewed gum that Simone had left on her piano. For 20 years, Ellis protected it like a religious relic, until Cave asked him to contribute it to a 2019 art exhibition he was curating. From here, Ellis’s fascinating relationship with the artifact took an intriguing turn—which he details with whimsy and admiration—as the gum’s “unique transmission of creative energy” connected him to a number of artists entranced by its power (and a few of who even painstakingly created molds to preserve it). When Belgian designer Ann Demeulemeester, for instance, encountered the gum, “it made her stomach tie itself in knots... [and] moved her beyond understanding.” Readers will find this heartfelt tribute to have a similar effect. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/24/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Rock Concert: An Oral History as Told by the Artists, Backstage Insiders, and Fans Who Were There

Marc Myers. Grove, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-0-8021-5791-1

Myers (Anatomy of a Song), a music writer for the Wall Street Journal, surveys in this engrossing oral history five decades of rock concerts, and the “songwriters, producers, disc jockeys, managers, promoters, and artists [that] sided with the youth culture as it struggled to be heard.” Starting with the emergence of R&B in the late 1940s and ending with 1985’s Live Aid benefit, he vividly recreates what went on behind the scenes, onstage, and in the crowds with intimate accounts from the people who were there. Joan Baez recounts what it was like to perform at the 1963 March on Washington and to lead the crowd in singing “We Shall Overcome”; Bob Eubanks describes how—despite being a disk jockey who’d never produced a concert before—he scrambled to secure the funding to make the Beatles’ legendary Hollywood Bowl performance happen; and Alice Cooper recalls relocating his band from California to the Midwest, where his “lurid and despicable” reputation resonated with Rust Belt kids. Myers also offers a thoughtful overview of the considerable ways in which the rock landscape has shifted since Live Aid, due to the popularity of streaming services and scandals recently brought to light on social media in response to “past or present me-too events.” Eminently entertaining, this is sure to delight rock fans of all persuasions. Agent: Glen Hartley, Writers’ Representatives. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/24/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The First 21: How I Became Nikki Sixx

Nikki Sixx. Hachette, $35 (288p) ISBN 978-0-306-92370-8

Sixx, bass player of the seminal metal band Mötley Crüe, follows his searing memoir, The Heroin Diaries, with an equally exhilarating look at the first 21 years of his life. Born Frank Ferrana in Idaho in 1958, he lived “paycheck to paycheck” with his mother and called a number of places home, until he moved in with his grandparents and settled into a more normal adolescence, playing football and blaring his music too loudly. After a stint in Seattle, where he saw Led Zeppelin perform for the first time, he moved to Los Angeles at age 18 to pursue a career in music. His story picks up speed as he recalls a high-octane era of working dead-end jobs by day and trying to make it in the competitive Hollywood music scene by night (“I was always thinking, always strategizing, always out at the clubs”), and spinning through a revolving door of lead singers and gritty venues in the late ’70s with his band, London, before finally founding Mötley Crüe in 1981. He also shares the humorous origin story of his stage name, Nikki Sixx—which he stole from another front man (after also stealing the singer’s girlfriend). Fans will relish this passionate look at the man behind the hair. Agent: Chris Nilsson, 10th Street Entertainment. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/24/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Who Owns the Wind? Climate Crisis and the Hope of Renewable Energy

David McDermott Hughes. Verso, $24.95 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-83976-113-3

Anthropologist Hughes (Energy Without a Conscience) investigates the history, politics, and culture of wind turbines in this eye-opening survey. He situates his study in a small village in Andalusia, Spain, where, in 2006, the locals protested a plan to install wind turbines nearby, claiming the project would destroy the aesthetics of their village and demanding they be compensated with “jobs, income, or both.” The protest wasn’t successful, raising questions for the author about the conflict between social justice, the privatization of natural resources, and ways of addressing climate change. Hughes argues that in order to achieve a sustainable world free of fossil fuels, people must find a compromise that doesn’t just enrich corporations and landowners, and proposes that people can learn to love wind turbines: citizens, he writes, could own the energy they produce, and windmills could be designed with an eye for beauty and an appreciation of the land. At times, the analysis strays into explorations of literary works such as that of Cervantes, who called windmills “the most monstrous objects on the landscape,” making for a fascinating if digressive account. Eloquent and incisive, this is an important contribution to climate change discourse. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/24/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Summer of Theory: History of a Revolt, 1960–1990

Phillipp Felsch, trans. from the German by Tony Crawford. Polity, $30 (280p) ISBN 978-1-50953-985-7

In Germany in the 1960s, “theory was more than just a succession of intellectual ideas: it was a claim of truth, an article of faith and a lifestyle accessory,” writes historian Felsch in his fascinating English-language debut. When Germany was first confronting its dark legacy from WWII, a revolution in critical theory was in the making, Felsch notes, and people became captivated with emerging philosophers and their philosophies. Felsch sheds light on how avant-garde publishers were instrumental in introducing German readers to French critical theory, notably the works of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Félix Guattari, and Claude Levi-Strauss. He moves beyond the history of ideas to document the wider impact of the movement on German society, as the pub scene evolved and bars attracted different milieux with various philosophical bents. Felsch appealingly blends social and intellectual history, and his prose shines when he writes about his own encounters with critical theory: “I read more than I have ever read since... in the heat of the Italian summer, the ‘microphysics of power’ and the ‘iceberg of history’ stuck to my forearms.” Impassioned and full of detail, this is a fascinating snapshot of the period. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/24/2021 | Details & Permalink

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On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times

Michael Ignatieff. Metropolitan, $26.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-8050-5521-4

Great minds find meaning in great sorrow in this searching meditation from historian Ignatieff (Fire and Ashes). Old texts, Ignatieff writes, are “still there to help us in our hour of need, to perform their ancient task once again,” and he surveys a variety of thinkers’ responses to death, bereavement, sickness, political disappointment, and civilizational collapse. These include Job’s questioning of a seemingly callous God, Paul’s promise that suffering leads to eternal life with Christ, and the stoic acceptance of misfortune by Roman statesmen Cicero and Marcus Aurelius. He also covers the humanist tradition of essayist Michel de Montaigne, philosopher David Hume, and sociologist Max Weber, who eased mortality’s sting with a focus on life’s daily pleasures, self-actualization, and devotion to one’s calling; Holocaust survivor Primo Levi’s project of bearing witness to the horror of Auschwitz; and hospice movement founder Cicely Saunders’s vision of dying as a valedictory summation of life. Ignatieff’s explorations of mainly post-religious discourses of consolation are erudite and elegant, though more impactful are his vivid biographical sketches of his subjects holding themselves together through failures, terminal illness, or looming execution, sometimes with the help of others’ kindness. These stories of perseverance inspire and, in their way, console. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/24/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Glorious Beef: The Lafrieda Family and the Evolution of the American Meat Industry

Pat Lafrieda & Cecilia Molinari. Ecco, $28.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-296670-4

Celebrity butcher Lafrieda (Meat) mixes autobiography with a tepid defense of the beef industry in this uneven work. In 1971, at age 10, he was already assisting his father by cutting meat at Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors’ Manhattan facility. After a stint in the military and some unhappy experiences as a Wall Street stockbroker, Lafrieda joined the family business in 1994, a time, he claims, when “no one really cared about where the meat came from.” He describes the business’s safety measures, arguing that “meat is one of the safest things you can buy now because of federal regulations,” and supports this with a look into the USDA’s rigorous grading process and the expansion of high-quality butchers. Though he maintains he’s “just seeking the truth,” he’s hasty to surmise whether plant-based burgers are healthier than all-natural beef: “I think it’s been openly proven and accepted that they’re not.” A closing section of recipes is useful, but some tips for consumers (“When you walk up to your butcher’s counter, look around. Is the counter and surrounding area clean?”) aren’t novel, and his grandiose statements about the virtues of eating meat (“[It’s] what made us the thinking and evolved humans we are”) tend to fall flat. This account is underdone. Agent: Johanna Castillo, Writers House. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/24/2021 | Details & Permalink

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